Rishi Sunak will speak to his cabinet about rail strikes today after a union announced days of extra strikes over Christmas in the long-running dispute over pay, jobs and conditions.
On Monday, the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) confirmed it would go ahead with two 48-hour strikes next week and will also walk out from 6pm on 24 December until 6am on 27 December.
Strikes affecting 14 train companies will go ahead next week, although talks will continue with the Rail Delivery Group today.
Mick Lynch, the RMT general secretary, said it was unfortunate that the union had been “compelled to take this action due to the continuing intransigence of the employers”.
He said: “We remain available for talks in order to resolve these issues but we will not bow to pressure from the employers and the government to the detriment of our members.”
The additional Christmas strikes are intended to target engineering work as no services run on Christmas Day or Boxing Day, Mr Lynch told the BBC.
He conceded that there will be disruption on Christmas Eve, saying that the “wind down” will happen earlier than usual.
Nick Gibb, the schools minister, told the RMT rail union not to “hold the country to ransom” as they prepare strikes in the run-up to Christmas.
The rail dispute is one of many threatening to deliver a winter of discontent as unions seek pay rises in line with the rate of inflation to help shield their members from the cost of living crisis.
There is the looming threat of action by nurses, firefighters and National Highways staff.
It is building on a wave of strikes among other professions, including teachers and bus drivers.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said: “I don’t want to see industrial action because I see workers losing their pay and I see the public inconvenience.”
She added: “I want to see our trains running on time and the work is being paid fairly and decently, and I think that there is a deal to be done to get there.”
Asked what she thought of Labour politicians being on the picket line, she said: “I don’t have a problem with [it].”
Earlier in the year, Sir Keir Starmer told Sky News “you can’t sit around the cabinet table and then go to a picket line”.
Later today, the GMB union is expected to announce the dates of ambulance worker strike action after members backed walkouts across nine trusts in England and Wales.
Over the weekend, the government confirmed that hundreds of troops are on stand-by to cover for ambulance crews, firefighters and Border Force staff as ministers prepare for a wave of strikes across public services before Christmas.
The Cabinet Office said that about 2,000 military personnel, civil servants and other volunteers from across government have been training as part of the government’s contingency planning.
Speaking to Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme, Conservative Party chairman Nadhim Zahawi said it was the “right and responsible thing to do” as ministers sought to minimise the disruption to the public.
As well as ambulance staff, nurses in the NHS are due to hold two days of strikes this month while junior doctors are also set to be balloted on industrial action.
The Fire Brigades Union is also balloting its members and industrial action is continuing at the Royal Mail.
Onay Kasab, national lead officer at Unite the Union, told Sky News that taking co-ordinated action “makes absolute sense”, adding that union members have “significant public support”.
Government homes in on £5bn cladding settlement with housebuilders
Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, is closing in on a multibillion pound deal with Britain’s biggest housebuilders to help resolve the national cladding crisis exposed by the 2017 Grenfell Tower disaster.
Sky News has learnt that major companies including Barratt Developments and Persimmon are preparing for the imminent signing of a legally binding contract with the government that could ultimately cost the industry £5bn or more.
One executive said they expected the final contract to be signed and unveiled as soon as next week, although they cautioned that the timing remained fluid.
Last year, dozens of developers signed a pledge to fix buildings constructed since the early 1990s, with revisions to the deal with government in recent weeks having focused on the scope of companies’ exposure.
The City watchdog is thought to have been involved in discussions with the industry about whether signing the contract would require the approval of shareholders in listed companies such as Barratt, Persimmon and Taylor Wimpey.
Sources have estimated the cost of the new Residential Property Developers Tax at up to £3bn and the bill for self-remediation at around £2bn.
A further tax on the industry could raise £3bn, industry executives have concluded, leading some companies and investors to warn that the sector risks seeing a flight of capital.
Earlier this month, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said it was “finalising the legally binding contracts that developers will sign to fix their unsafe buildings, and expect them to do so very soon.
“We will not accept any backsliding on their commitments.
“It is building owners’ legal responsibility to make sure that all buildings are safe.”
FTSE-100 housebuilders have already taken significant financial provisions in their accounts to prepare for the signing of the final government contract.
Some have flagged during recent earnings calls with analysts that they expected an imminent settlement.
“In signing the pledge, we’re saying that we essentially had a commitment that we wanted to sign up to the legal agreement,” David Thomas, Barratt’s chief executive, told analysts this month.
” There’s been a process of discussion regarding the legal agreement that has been ongoing since June last year, so we think we’re getting close to the government publishing the legal agreement, and we would expect in due course that we would sign up to that.”
A spokesman for the Home Builders Federation (HBF) said: “The pledge [signed last year] demonstrated the industry’s commitment to play its part in ensuring leaseholders don’t pay for work needed to make buildings safe.
“We have been working constructively with government to ensure the detailed contract reflects the commitments of the pledge and we await a final version.
“UK housebuilders are taking responsibility and are well progressed with remediating their own buildings and are already paying another £3bn to fund work on buildings built by foreign companies and others.
“Government now needs to deliver on commitments to secure contributions from foreign builders and the material providers at the heart of this issue and avoid targeting UK housebuilders further for buildings built by others”.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt set to declare that dire predictions about UK’s future are ‘wrong’
The chancellor will dismiss “gloom” about the prospects for the UK economy and say the government will bring about long-term prosperity in a plan “energised” by Brexit.
Mr Hunt will deliver an upbeat message in a keynote speech today, where he will say the government has a plan to use “British genius and British hard work” to boost economic growth and make the country “the world’s next Silicon Valley”.
He will go on to say the UK is “poised to play a leading role in Europe and across the world in the growth sectors which will define this century”.
According to advance extracts from his speech released by the Treasury, he will also say “declinism about Britain was wrong in the past and it is wrong today”.
Speaking at Bloomberg’s European headquarters in London, Mr Hunt is also expected to continue to resist calls from some Tory MPs for tax cuts to kickstart flagging economic growth.
Instead he will say the UK should exploit the opportunities provided by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU to raise productivity while using the proceeds of growth to support public services.
Mr Hunt will say that some of the “gloom” about the current economic outlook is based on statistics that “do not reflect the whole picture”.
“Like every G7 country, our growth was slower in the years after the financial crisis than the years before it,” he will say.
“But since 2010, the UK has grown faster than France, Japan and Italy. Since the Brexit referendum, we have grown at about the same rate as Germany.
“If we look further ahead, the case for declinism becomes weaker still. The UK is poised to play a leading role in Europe and across the world in the growth sectors which will define this century.”
Mr Hunt will also say: “Our plan for the years that follow is long-term prosperity based on British genius and British hard work.
“(And) world-beating enterprises to make Britain the world’s next Silicon Valley.”
The chancellor will add: “It is a plan necessitated, energised and made possible by Brexit which will succeed if it becomes a catalyst for the bold choices we need to take.
“Our plan for growth is a plan built on the freedoms which Brexit provides. It is a plan to raise productivity.
“It is a plan to use the proceeds of growth to support our public services at home, to support businesses in the new low-carbon economy and to support democracy abroad.
“It is the right course for our country and the role in the world to which we aspire.”
Mr Hunt will also use his speech to announce that the government is to proceed with reforms to so-called “Solvency II” – an EU directive that governs the amount of funds British insurers are required to hold in reserve.
The Treasury pointed to an estimate by the Association of British Insurers which suggested the changes could unlock up to £100bn of private investment into UK infrastructure and clean energy – such as nuclear power – over the coming decade.
His address will come after a cabinet away day at Chequers yesterday, where Mr Hunt told ministers they must maintain their “disciplined approach” if they are to get inflation under control.
The chancellor is facing calls from some Tory MPs to cut taxes in his budget in March to inject growth into the economy.
But at Chequers, both he and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak emphasised the priority remained inflation which was only predicted to fall because of the “tough decisions” taken to stabilise the economy following former PM Liz Truss’s catastrophic mini-budget tax giveaway.
“The chancellor said it would be necessary to retain this disciplined approach in order to reduce inflation, because it is the greatest driver of the cost of living,” according to a No 10 readout of the meeting.
UK car production slumps to 66-year low but improvement expected ahead
UK car production fell to its lowest level since 1956 last year, according to industry figures showing that the global shortage of parts continued to drag on performance.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) had already reported how the sale of new vehicles in 2022 was severely damaged by the lack of key components, particularly semiconductor chips.
COVID-led supply chain disruption harmed the ability of UK factories to drive availability to meet demand, though there is optimism the worst is now behind the sector.
Although 2022 will not be considered a success, there was limited progress in efforts to produce more zero emission or more climate-friendly vehicles as the clock ticks down towards the 2030 ban on the sale of new cars powered by diesel and petrol.
A total of 775,014 cars were built in 2022, the SMMT said.
That was down almost 10% from the 859,575 made during the previous year and 40.5% below pre-COVID crisis levels in 2019.
The SMMT said the figures were distorted by the closure of Honda’s factory in Swindon in July 2021 and the decision by Stellantis to stop producing the Vauxhall Astra in Ellesmere Port in April 2022 to produce electric vans instead.
The bright spark was the production of 234,066 fully electric, or battery electric vehicles (BEV), plug-in hybrids (PHEV) and hybrid (HEV) electric vehicles.
It was a record total, with combined production up 4.5% versus 2021.
Hybrids and BEVs accounted for 30.2% of all car production, the SMMT said.
Independent forecasts suggest the reopening of the Chinese economy from COVID restrictions should help drive a 15% increase in UK output this year as crucial chips become more readily available.
There are challenges.
These include the risk of investment flowing to the United States due to heavy government subsidies.
The collapse of the Britishvolt electric vehicle battery start-up has also raised fears over the domestic supply chain ahead of the 2030 deadline.
Mike Hawes, chief executive of the SMMT, said: “The potential for this sector to deliver economic growth by building more of these zero-emission models is self-evident; however, we must make the right decisions now.
“This means shaping a strategy to drive rapid upscaling of UK battery production and the shift to electric vehicles based on the UK automotive sector’s fundamental strengths – a highly skilled and flexible workforce, engineering excellence, technical innovation and productivity levels that are among the best in Europe.”
A government spokesperson said of the state of affairs: “We are determined to ensure the UK remains one of the best locations in the world for automotive manufacturing.
“Our success is evidenced by the £1bn investment in Sunderland in 2021, and we are building on this through a major investment programme to electrify our supply chain and create jobs.”
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